I was in Israel in May, 1977 when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister. On the kibbutz where I was staying, this was accompanied by a gnashing of teeth, a rending of garments, and flags flying at half-mast. I remember invoking January 30th, 1933, by means of comparison. For the first time in the almost thirty years of Israel’s history, governance had passed from Mapai, the labor party, the party of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, the party that had led Israel since its founding. That was more than half a lifetime ago for me. I left Israel that September to start graduate school at NYU, and my life has taken various twists and turns, none of which, however, has brought me back to Israel. There was another election in Israel yesterday. I don’t know how the results will be judged by those on the kibbutz where I was staying, but I suspect it will be more a shrugging of shoulders than anything else. Israel has changed, and has moved steadily to the right. It is not clear who is going to be the next prime minister, but it either will be Tzipi Livni, who started out in Likud and moved somewhat towards the center, or Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always been in Likud. Right-wing governmental coalitions are not news anymore. But I do think that this election represents a turning point, perhaps as profound as that in May 1977.
But explaining this requires a bit of background for those not up on Israeli politics. The great confrontation in interwar Zionism was between David Ben-Gurion of the Labor Party and Vladimir Jabotinsky of the Revisionists, Ben-Gurion of the moderate socialist left and Jabotinsky of the hard militant right. It appeared in 1948, and for several decades thereafter, that Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was victorious in this struggle. But it is now clear that Ben-Gurion only won the first battle; Jabotinsky won the war. (And to keep a New York thread to the blog, I would point out that Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in the Catskills in 1940.) All of the three largest parties in this election, representing the moderate right, the immoderate right, and the extremist right, can trace a lineage to Jabotinsky and the revisionists. Israel is Jabotinsky’s.
The reasons for this are not hard to discern. The Labor Party vision is complex, but basically envisioned a land at peace, ingathering the exiles, built by labor, the Revisionist vision was a Jewish state perpetually at war with unforgiving neighbors, defending itself as best as it could, with an iron wall between itself and the Arabs. The Revisionist vision, alas, has proved more realistic. Wars of course are self-confirming. One almost always leads to another, and another, and so it has proved for Israel and its Arab neighbors. The more wars you start, the more you get to finish. This is the Israel of 2009, created, it must be said, in large part through the failures of the Labor Party. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. The prospects are not encouraging.